On page 30 of Nicolas Bourriaud’s Relational Aesthetics, he describes Sophie Calle’s work as “[consisting] largely in describing her meetings with strangers.” Although this is a very hurried summary of Calle’s work, it does capture the basic essence of what she does – repeatedly, Calle invites others into her life, or inserts herself into theirs, and documents the events that follow. Often she has some sort of framework in place, but what ultimately transpires is completely unscripted, and as simultaneously mundane and bizarre as any event in ordinary life. Calle documents and shares these experiences, often in the form of books or prints on gallery walls, featuring both textual and photographic accounts. The real art, though, is in the moments of life she shares with her subjects. This aspect of her work is also what makes it relational – the fact that her work consists entirely of sharing in a moment, or series of moments, with a stranger. The work, therefore, would not exist without the participation of the subject, even when they are unaware of their role in the piece.
One of Calle’s earlier pieces, called "Sleepers," involved inviting strangers (around 40, total) to spend the night in her bed. She ran a newspaper ad inviting people to come – some of whom, like Patrick, who is described in the book about the events, came having misinterpreted the ad (in his case, thinking it was sexual) but nonetheless participated, in most cases for about eight hours. Calle would document them, photographically and through writing, almost as if she was journaling. This is arguably where Calle's work began to take on aspects of what critics would call "Surveillance."
Calle’s next big project, called “Bronx,” took place in 1979 and involved her waiting at a gallery in NYC, where she would ask visitors to take her to one of their favorite places in the Bronx. Calle documented in a similar style to that of Sleepers.
A later project, “The Shadow” (1981), involved a role reversal: Calle had her mother hire private detectives to shadow Calle and document her daily life. Calle then exhibited the detectives’ documentation of herself as the final product of the piece, in the same style as she would when she documented her work herself.
Further later work of Calle’s involved sharing personal stories, rather than making new ones – both the 1988“Autobiographical Stories” and a 2005 exhibit involved Calle telling her own stories, as well as those of others who wished to participate.
Finally, the piece Calle is perhaps best known for – “Suite Venitienne,” 1996 – involved Calle following a man around Venice after meeting him at a party where he mentioned he would be travelling there. Again, Calle documented her observations of the man in both writing and photographs.
Watching people as they go about their lives is the core element of Calle’s work, although it took different forms over the course of her career. The art, then, is not only relational, or related to people and how they interact, but is entirely based in people and their habits – what makes them similar, what makes them different, but moreover, the simple actions of a daily life.